More on Fuller’s and Dark Star, Plus Links

Illustration: dark star -- SOLD

Having reacted in the immediate aftermath of the news that Fuller’s has acquired Dark Star we’ve been thinking and talking about it since, and seeking additional input.

First, we asked on Twit­ter whether they thought this was good or bad news. Pre­dictably, lots of peo­ple want­ed a not sure, don’t know, don’t care option, which we delib­er­ate­ly omit­ted because we were after a deci­sive result. But of course that’s the camp we’re in, though erring on the opti­mistic side – Dark Star seemed in the dol­drums to us and this is more like­ly to lift it than destroy it. Of the 425 peo­ple who did feel strong­ly and sure enough to vote, 65 per cent leaned that way too:

In the mean­time some con­crete infor­ma­tion has emerged. For the Morn­ing Adver­tis­er James Bee­son inter­viewed Dark Star MD James Cuth­bert­son who said:

There will be some over­lap in our accounts and sales teams, and there will be some redun­dan­cies, which we will hope to keep to a min­i­mum. How­ev­er, Fuller’s have worked very hard to make sure their ex-staff are well looked after, and this ties back into the over­rid­ing point which is that they just ‘get it’; they know how to treat beer and treat peo­ple.”

There have also been sub­stan­tial reflec­tive pieces from Pete Brown, who is typ­i­cal­ly keyed into the emo­tion­al aspect of the sto­ry:

When a brew­ery gets bought, depend­ing on the cir­cum­stances, it can feel as though peo­ple you believed in to live the dream on your behalf have turned out to be just like every­one else – they’ve dis­il­lu­sioned you and let you down. Alter­na­tive­ly, it may be that they stood hero­ical­ly for as long and they could, but even­tu­al­ly had no choice to suc­cumb, prov­ing that a rebel­lious, anti-estab­lish­ment stance is always ulti­mate­ly doomed to fail­ure.

And Roger Protz, who is gen­er­al­ly crit­i­cal of takeovers and sen­si­tive to cor­po­rate skull­dug­gery, but here says:

The suc­cess of the craft beer sec­tor is cre­at­ing a num­ber of acqui­si­tions.… These takeovers have been dri­ven to a large extent by rapid­ly declin­ing sales of glob­al lager brands and old-fash­ioned keg ales. Fuller’s on the oth­er hand is not a glob­al brew­er and its beer sales are not in decline. But work­ing with Dark Star and cre­at­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion beers with Moor Beer of Bris­tol and Mar­ble has shown the kudos that can be gained by iden­ti­fy­ing with a craft sec­tor that has such appeal to younger and dis­crim­i­nat­ing drinkers.

His sum­ma­ry of the back­ground to Fuller’s takeover of Gale’s in 2005 is help­ful, too: an unin­ter­est­ed fam­i­ly, a decrepit brew­ery, and lit­tle choice for Fuller’s but to close it down; but lin­ger­ing local resent­ment all the same.

* * *

Some peo­ple seem puz­zled or even irri­tat­ed at the focus on this sto­ry, espe­cial­ly those who don’t live in or any­where near Lon­don and the Home Coun­ties, but of course it’s not just about Dark Star – it’s a case study in what might hap­pen else­where in the coun­try.

If you want to play the pre­dic­tion game per­haps start by look­ing for a brew­ery with a con­vinc­ing mod­ern craft beer iden­ti­ty and high pro­file, but that has seemed a unsteady in recent years. Dark Star, the exam­ple at hand, lost its super­star head brew­er, Mark Tran­ter, in 2013, after which its beer was wide­ly per­ceived as hav­ing dipped in qual­i­ty. It also seemed to be strug­gling to main­tain its rel­e­vance in a world of Cloud­wa­ters and Brew­Dogs, always one rebrand behind the zeit­geist.

Or, to put all that anoth­er way, brew­eries rarely seem to sell up in the heady hype-phase – it’s dur­ing the come down that they’re vul­ner­a­ble.

Thought for the Day: Fuller’s and Dark Star

Fuller's pumpclips.

News broke this morning that Fuller’s has taken over Dark Star, one of the pioneering UK craft breweries. (Definition 2.)

Those who have stud­ied their British beer his­to­ry, or hap­pen to have lived through it, will per­haps won­der if this is Fuller’s mov­ing into Whit­bread ter­ri­to­ry. Back in the post-war peri­od Whit­bread ‘helped out’, then took over, a slew of small­er brew­eries until they had become a nation­al oper­a­tion – the pre­cur­sor to the rather face­less inter­na­tion­al brew­ing firms we know today.

The dif­fer­ence, it seems to us, is that back then (to gen­er­alise very broad­ly) Whit­bread were after pubs, not brands. They want­ed out­lets for their own prod­ucts – a hun­dred pubs here, a hun­dred pubs there – but did away with local brands and closed down local brew­eries, which max­imised the impact of nation­al adver­tis­ing cam­paigns and kept things sim­ple, if bland.

Now, in 2018, firms such as Marston’s and Greene King have pubs but feel under pres­sure to offer a wider range of beer. For them, own­ing a port­fo­lio of small­er brew­eries or at least brew­ery names is a great way of doing so while con­trol­ling mar­gins and sim­pli­fy­ing sup­ply chains. Some peo­ple call this ‘the illu­sion of choice’ which is accu­rate if you define choice as the abil­i­ty to decide where your mon­ey ends up. But often it real­ly is choice, at least in terms of styles and pro­files, to a degree. Bet­ter than noth­ing, at any rate.

Fuller’s has tried sell­ing its own craft brands, with some suc­cess, but Dark Star real­ly is some­thing dif­fer­ent. Fuller’s has gold­en ales and sum­mer ales but no Hop­head of its own and we imag­ine that’s the spe­cif­ic beer this deal has been done to secure. (Per­haps based on sales fig­ures from The Harp, a cen­tral Lon­don free­house acquired by Fuller’s long-regard­ed as an unof­fi­cial town tap for the Sus­sex brew­ery.) Dark Star’s four pubs are nei­ther here nor there – prob­a­bly more trou­ble than they’re worth – and Fuller’s is not Whit­bread cir­ca 1965. We’re not even sure it’s the Fuller’s that bought and shut down Gale’s in 2005-06, to gen­er­al out­rage, and we’d be very sur­prised if pro­duc­tion of Dark Star beers moves to west Lon­don any­time in the next decade, giv­en increased inter­est in prove­nance and trans­paren­cy among con­sumers.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 2 December 2017: Brixton, Walkabout, TransPennine Trains

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past week from sexist beer branding to chronic Oztalgia.

First, that brew­ery takeover news. Well, we say ‘takeover’ but in fact Heineken has actu­al­ly acquired a non-con­trol­ling (49 per cent) stake in south Lon­don’s Brix­ton Brew­ery. With this, Cam­den Town and Lon­don Fields in mind, it begins to seem that the key to lur­ing in invest­ment from Big Beer is a good neigh­bour­hood-spe­cif­ic brand name. We can cer­tain­ly imag­ine Brix­ton Craft Lager com­pet­ing for bar-space with Cam­den Hells in the near future. The gen­er­al reac­tion seems to be neu­tral, shad­ing pos­i­tive – ‘good for them’ – but this slam from Yes! Ale reflects the coun­ter­view: “You may as well be pissin’ straight into the fer­menter, Mon­ey­bags.”

Mean­while, Span­ish firm Mahou San Miguel has acquired a 30 per cent stake in Avery, a brew­ery in Col­orado, while AB-InBev has acquired Aus­tralian upstarts Pirate Life lock, stock and (ahem) bar­rel. Decem­ber is a busy time for this kind of activ­i­ty every year now, it seems, per­haps for as obvi­ous a rea­son as every­one scram­bling to wrap up nego­ti­a­tions before the Christ­mas lull.

One final bit of read­ing on this: Richard Tay­lor of Brew­Dog writ­ing at the Beer­Cast sug­gests that the Pirate Life sto­ry might sig­nal how this will play out in future takeovers, with Big Beer win­ning over reluc­tant craft brew­ers with the offer of a sep­a­rate small­er brew­ery to play around on mak­ing sour beers or what­ev­er. “Hey guys, it’s fine”, he imag­ines the Big Beer nego­tia­tors say­ing. “We’ll build a new brew­ery for your core stuff and push it to mar­ket. You can keep the old kit and go wild on it. Brew what you like! Go for IT! HIGH FIVE. NOW. HIGH FIVE US LIKE A DUDE. RADICAL!’”

Con­tin­ue read­ing “News, Nuggets & Lon­greads 2 Decem­ber 2017: Brix­ton, Walk­a­bout, TransPen­nine Trains”

QUICK ONE: The Problem is Hypocrisy

Illustration: a pint of beer in chalk on a blackboard.

Selling your brewery for fabulous amounts of money to a big multinational isn’t a problem – it’s doing so when you’ve made capital from being opposed to just that kind of thing.

If you had made a point of say­ing along the way, ‘We would nev­er rule out sell­ing to some­one like AB-InBev – we have no beef with Big Beer,’ then it’s unlike­ly any­one would get annoyed when you did so.

So why did­n’t you do that?

It must have been at least part­ly because you believed you’d gain less pub­lic­i­ty and adu­la­tion, and sell less beer.

You might have been right to think that, but we sus­pect not: the oth­er way, you’d gain marks for hon­esty, and pick up the kind of fans for whom beer isn’t so pun­gent with pol­i­tics.

Either way, if you insist inde­pen­dence is impor­tant when it ben­e­fits you but then decide peo­ple who care about it are sil­ly and imma­ture when your sit­u­a­tion changes, expect them to be annoyed.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 6 May 2017: Malt, Monkeys and the Daily Mail

Here’s everything that’s grabbed our attention in the last week in the world of pubs and beer, from drunken monkeys to the soap opera of brewery takeovers.

The mayor with his homebrew.

Lars Mar­ius Garshol found him­self in a town ‘Where the May­or Makes His Own Malt’:

When Mar­tin, Amund, and I were invit­ed to vis­it Roar to explore the local beer style stjørdal­søl, Roar fig­ured that he might as well make use of the three vis­it­ing beer  ‘experts,’ and have us do a set of talks for the local home brew­ing asso­ci­a­tion… They’d set it up as a rather grand affair, and the may­or him­self came by to open the evening. I was a bit sur­prised by this, until the may­or start­ed talk­ing. He said a few words about the cul­tur­al impor­tance of the local brew­ing, and then added that ‘Usu­al­ly, when I do some­thing like this I give the orga­niz­ers flow­ers. But in this case I thought beer would be more suit­able.’ At which point he took out a bot­tle and hand­ed it to the chair­man of the brew­er’s asso­ci­a­tion. It turned out that the may­or is also a farm­house brew­er, and since this is Stjørdal, he of course makes his own malts, too.

Drunk monkeys.
Paint­ing by David Teniers (1610–1690) via Res Obscu­ra.

For Res Obscu­ra Ben­jamin Breen looks into why so many 17th Cen­tu­ry paint­ings fea­ture drunk mon­keys:

The most sim­ple answer is that these paint­ings are the ear­ly mod­ern ver­sion of search­ing for “dog who thinks he’s a human” on YouTube. They’re fun­ny. Paint­ings of intox­i­cat­ed mon­keys were actu­al­ly a sub-set of a larg­er genre of paint­ings known as Sin­gerie, which poked fun at occu­pa­tions rang­ing from drunk­ard to painter by por­tray­ing the par­tic­i­pants as friv­o­lous simi­ans… [But] I think that what we’re miss­ing when we sim­ply see these as a form of social satire is that these are also paint­ings about addic­tion.

(Via @intoxproject)

The bar with stools and drinkers.

Jes­si­ca Mason, AKA The Drinks Maven, has writ­ten a pas­sion­ate argu­ment for choos­ing pubs over restau­rants:

Great atmos­pheres are cre­at­ed with our ears as much as our oth­er sens­es. Con­ver­sa­tion and laugh­ter emit from seclud­ed seats, across bars and around rick­ety tables. Why is this? The sim­plic­i­ty of the every­day – the nicks and scratch­es and bare wood – isn’t try­ing to be more or any bet­ter. As such, more hon­est and heart­felt and open con­ver­sa­tions are debat­ed around pub tables… Infor­mal­i­ty and a cer­tain lack of pos­tur­ing put peo­ple at ease. If you want to hear the truth from some­one, talk to them in the pub. The point they put their drink down and say: ‘Look, the truth is…’ you’ve fig­u­ra­tive­ly helped them remove their armour.

Andy reads the Daily Mail in Chorleywood.

The Ulti­mate Lon­don Pub Crawl this week reached Chor­ley­wood at the Hert­ford­shire end of the tube net­work:

We were regal­ing the bar staff about our quest to explore all 270 Lon­don tube sta­tions when a bystander saun­tered over:

I used to do a sim­i­lar thing, but on the nation­al rail net­work,’ he boast­ed non­cha­lant­ly.

We made nois­es of the non­com­mit­tal vari­ety, half impressed and half mis­trust­ful.

Yeah, me and the lads would stick a pin in the rail map on a Fri­day night and go out booz­ing all week­end. Glas­gow was a great one – I had to buy myself some new clothes there mind you.’

Anton Dreher.

Since work­ing on Gam­bri­nus Waltz we’ve been itch­ing to taste an authen­tic recre­ation of a 19th cen­tu­ry Vien­na beer – what were they real­ly like? Now Andreas Kren­mair, who is work­ing on a book about home­brew­ing his­toric styles, has some new infor­ma­tion from close to the source:

I vis­it­ed the Schultze-Berndt library locat­ed at VLB and curat­ed by the Gesellschaft für Geschichte des Brauwe­sens… [where] I stum­bled upon a Festschrift regard­ing 100 years of brew­ing Vien­na lager, apt­ly named ‘Schwechater Lager’. While not hav­ing that much con­tent, it still had some bits and pieces that gave away some infor­ma­tion, includ­ing the beau­ti­ful water colour illus­tra­tions… One image in par­tic­u­lar con­tained some­thing very inter­est­ing: pic­tures of huge stacks of hop bales… These hop bales clear­ly show the mark­ing ‘SAAZ’.

Brewery Takeover News

It’s been a busy week in the US: AB-InBev swooped in to acquire Wicked Weed of North Car­oli­na. Good Beer Hunt­ing part­ners with AB-InBev on var­i­ous projects and takes a broad­ly pos­i­tive line to such acqui­si­tions these days but its sto­ry cov­ers the key points well: Wicked Weed is a niche buy for AB; fans have react­ed with par­tic­u­lar irri­ta­tion to this one; and oth­er brew­eries are respond­ing in var­i­ous ways, includ­ing with­draw­ing from Wicked Weed’s Funka­to­ri­um Fes­ti­val.

Then the fol­low­ing day Heineken picked up the part of Lagu­ni­tas it did­n’t already own. This sto­ry was cov­ered at Brew­bound which gen­er­al­ly takes an edi­to­r­i­al line which seems to us mod­er­ate­ly crit­i­cal of big beer and AB-InBev in par­tic­u­lar. Its edi­tor seems to spend quite a bit of time bick­er­ing about dis­clo­sure and pro­pri­ety with Good Beer Hunt­ing on Twit­ter, too.

Remem­ber, news isn’t neu­tral.

Brewery Takeover Commentary

Jeff Alworth at Beer­vana (scep­ti­cal of big beer, pro indie, but not a scream­ing fun­da­men­tal­ist) is trou­bled by the way anoth­er AB-InBev acqui­si­tion, Ten Bar­rel, seems to be obfus­cat­ing its con­nec­tion with the glob­al giant:

Two Sat­ur­days hence (May 13), AB InBev is host­ing a mas­sive­ly expen­sive par­ty in Bend. They’re pro­mot­ing it the way only one of the largest com­pa­nies in the world can–with prizes, a big music line­up (includ­ing De La Soul!), and the kind of over­heat­ed mar­ket­ing gloss the finest agen­cies sup­ply. The occa­sion cel­e­brates the found­ing of a brew­ery AB InBev pur­chased in 2014. Shock­ing­ly enough, this is not the way they’re talk­ing about it… Indeed, the entire event is an exer­cise in dis­guis­ing this detail.

Coun­ter­point: in no oth­er sec­tor would we expect a sub­sidiary to loud­ly state the name of their par­ent com­pa­ny in mar­ket­ing mate­r­i­al, says Good Beer Hunt­ing on Twit­ter.

But we’re with Jeff: a brand built pri­mar­i­ly on the val­ue of Inde­pen­dence is being dis­hon­est, even exploita­tive of con­sumers, if it does­n’t active­ly dis­close its change in sta­tus for at least a few years after acqui­si­tion.

Psst! Whispering men.

Mean­while, Draft mag­a­zine has a bit of a coup, con­vinc­ing a senior employ­ee at a brew­ery tak­en over by AB-InBev to dis­cuss what the expe­ri­ence is like:

There’s more paper­work and bureau­cra­cy to work through now, but not a lot more. I’ve worked in this indus­try for a while, and the biggest thing I learned dur­ing that time is how jaw-drop­ping­ly loosey-goosey most brew­eries are and how lit­tle struc­ture there is with most craft brew­eries. You’d be sur­prised how many craft brew­eries don’t even know their real mar­gins. It’s just basic busi­ness things. So to answer your ques­tion about whether there’s more bureau­cra­cy and over­sight now, I’d say no more than your aver­age com­pa­ny; it’s just that most brew­eries have so lit­tle.

The only prob­lem with this anony­mous account is that it’s exact­ly the kind of thing we’d autho­rise if we worked in PR for AB – broad­ly upbeat with the only neg­a­tives, like the one above, actu­al­ly being back­hand­ed boasts.

But maybe this is real­ly how it is and all this intrigue is just mak­ing us para­noid.

And, final­ly, this seems like a good adver­tise­ment for the Tour de Geuze which is under­way in Bel­gium at this very moment: